Thursday, April 16, 2009

David Becker

I met David Becker at Southern Exposure's Monster Drawing Rally. We met up again for this interview across the street from the annual Game Developers Conference, which proved to be a strangely appropriate setting.

When David Becker watches George Lucas' "American Grafitti," it reminds him of growing up in Stockton, California in the 1960s: 

"A valley town like that [has a] big car culture, so you kind of grew up with people that were building hot rods and cars to race. Drag racing is a big thing in Stockton"

Inspired by the aesthetic of 1960s poster art and Rat Fink creator Ed Roth, Becker embraced the creative energy of the Hot-rod "Kustom Kulture" movement: 

"We were all through junior high copying all those [hot-rod] T-shirt designs, [using] spray paint, paint, various [mediums] - anything we could figure out would stick [...] We would do t-shirts and what have you and sell them at school."

While making t-shirts and designs was a social experience for Becker, the drive to create was personal: 

"I had my hand in some kind of artistic activity all through growing up and then decided to see the world through art school [...]  It was a natural [...] inclination to do that."

Although it wasn't a preferred career choice, Becker's father, a hobbiest photographer, understood his interest. While sorting through issues with the draft, Becker went to the local community college and studied art:

"I had a teacher at Delta College that was influential, very supportive [...] I think back on that a lot, because it was probably  a moment in time [when] you're young and you have someone like that who unequivocally believes in you: it gives you the kind of confidence to keep doing what you're doing [...] despite all the other things I was going through at the time"

It was in community college that Becker discovered printmaking. He next attended CCAC, but soon after went to study in London, with a focus on printmaking:

"I took to it and I liked the process and I did a lot of that all through college [...] That was my life. I got through whatever menial job I had and I would stay up all night and do prints and I loved it and it was great"

When Becker returned to San Francisco, he enrolled at SF State, where he explored installation work and studied film. However, it was when he returned to a more traditional medium that the next chapter of his life unfolded:

"I got into doing large drawings [...] I submitted those to the Whitney Museum study program and got into their studio program. So from there I went to New York [...] I basically did that and just didn't come back"

Inspired by the downtown NYC art scene of the 1970s, Becker stayed there for the next eighteen years. His involvement with art ebbed and flowed, as he made a living working with architects and builders, as well as sculptors, but his exposure continued to broaden meaningfully:

"I discovered painting in New York [...] I got there and I was doing everything but painting, right through the Whitney program: I was doing installation, wall drawings, ephemeral sculpture... And then I had a girlfriend at the time who said, 'You know, you're a painter. Why don't you paint? Everything you do looks like a painter who's trying to do other stuff.' At that point, I had never ever painted"

As he gravitated towards painting, Becker began to appreciate art's place in history as well. He found that understanding the context of a painting contributed to its timelessness:

"I would just go to the Met and I would just love to look at paintings. You start to look at it through those eyes, from that vantage point, and whether its fifty or a hundred or two hundred years old, it doesn't matter."

Meanwhile, Becker eventually returned to the Bay Area and finished his degree, but didn't return his focus to art until about six years ago. Revisiting the sketchbooks that he has kept for years allowed him to reflect on his inspirations, and, in particular, the role of contemporaneous politics in art:

"I like that narrative and I like that reflection of meaning to a particular time and place. I realized why I like that art, I realized why I like the Neoclassical art, and the particular paintings of that period made more sense to me"

With more clarity into these notions, Becker began creating more temporally relevant paintings. Reflecting on such politically-aware painters as Francisco de Goya and Philip Guston, Becker began to think of the art as more secondary:

"These are painters that have a very strong formal basis, that's where they come from, but at some point their desire to enter into this narrative of some sort... it became more important than the art"

Still heavily influenced by the aesthetic of low-brow art, Becker uses graffiti-like words in many of his paintings. His haunting cartoon-like figures are starkly positioned as the subject:

"I'm totally into this avatar/cartoon stuff [and] the way they pervade common culture, more so than people. It's like people have become two-dimensional through these characters and it's become another language to me"

Through this language of characters and graffiti, Becker responds to the times, choosing to participate in the narrative of history: 

"I don't think about the art necessarily - that's almost secondary. I think first about these images and juxtaposing them or putting them together or how they read. [...] The art's there just because I'm so immersed in it"

Keep watching the Arteaser calendar for upcoming shows and events where you can see David Becker's work.

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